Archive for March, 2007

Gorilla Kingdom Fails to Impress

Thursday, March 29th, 2007

Despite the huge fanfare and the presence of HRH The Duke of Edinburgh at today’s opening of London Zoo’s “Gorilla Kingdom”, I’m very sceptical about this new enclosure, described by the Zoo as ‘the most important development in the zoo for 40 years’, and whether it will deliver real benefits to gorilla conservation and public education.. 

Of course, I hope that the increased space and more diverse environment will bring welfare benefits to the inmates but London Zoo talks about the conservation benefits of this exhibit. No gorillas have been born at the Zoo since 1988.  The Zoo also talks about the education benefits, but alongside the captive gorillas, the Zoo is putting up plasma screens showing wild gorillas and their conservation in their natural habitat. I wonder what visitors will make of it when on the one hand they compare what they know about complex wild gorilla society and their rich and varied jungle environment and, on the other, “Gorilla Kingdom” which extends to just over an acre at a cost of more than £5,000,000. I think it will make for uncomfortable viewing. 

Some people claim that the “Gorilla Kingdom” is a good use of this huge sum of money – I couldn’t disagree more.  Just think what we could do in a critical gorilla habitat for the threatened Eastern Lowland Gorillas of the Democratic Republic of Congo, or the fragmented Lowland Gorilla populations of West Africa, with even a fraction of that amount.

There are 35,000 Western Lowland gorillas in the wild – there are just three at London Zoo.  Even if they successfully breed on “Love Island” (as “Gorilla Kingdom” has been tastelessly nick-named), such breeding will have a negligible impact on the species and could well, in my view, distract public attention and vital resources away from where the battle of Africa’s gorilla’s will be won or lost… in the wild.

All for now…


A future for Knut and all captive polar bears

Monday, March 26th, 2007

Knut the controversial polar bear cub is deemed ready by Berlin Zoo and has been put on display to the public but, despite his popularity, his future remains uncertain.   While euthanasia now seems to be off the agenda he cannot be placed back with his mother and father nor released back into the wild. 

So the question remains… what is to happen to Knut?  Berlin Zoo says it’s keen to see Knut become a breeding polar bear, being transported from zoo to zoo, siring more polar bears destined for a life in captivity.  Surely this cannot be Knut’s destiny – the bear used to perpetuate the keeping of this species in captive conditions which, in all likelihood, will lead to abnormal stereotypic behaviour. In my view the conditions at Berlin Zoo and virtually all other zoos simply cannot provide properly for these inquisitive and complex animals which constantly demand new stimuli.

We have been told about a “sanctuary” for polar bears in Canada. Born Free spoke to our colleagues at Zoo Check Canada who said that although still not an ideal place for polar bears to reside, this “sanctuary” is better than any Canadian polar bear zoo enclosure.  The main thing learned from this sanctuary demonstrates, however, is that it may just be possible to create a polar bear rescue centre with large enclosures offering a diverse environment capable of stimulating a polar bears natural behaviour and crucially, providing an alternative to a life within a barren zoo enclosure. 

Many polar bears worldwide find themselves in the same situation as Knut, and many have been suffering far longer.  One of the many letters we received reports on the plight of these Arctic animals being held in particularly poor zoo conditions in Egypt, a country with a climate which could not be further from the natural conditions that a POLAR bear needs. 

The international public has shown its concern for Knut and his future. It is now time to help him and all captive polar bears live a life worth living.

 Signing off for now,


Knut – It is about welfare not conservation

Wednesday, March 21st, 2007

Knut, the baby polar bear is an international media star but his future is uncertain. Born in December, he currently lives with keepers at Berlin Zoo but German law, it would seem, suggests that hand-raised bears should be humanely destroyed rather than allowed to live. Surely this cannot be allowed if – and I stress if – there is a place where his welfare can be adequately met. That is not to say that I am advocating the keeping of polar bears in zoos. I am not.

Destroying him should not be an option. Returning him to the wild is not an option. Leaving him in the Zoo with its antiquated polar bear enclosure (all rock, concrete – typical mid 20th century stuff) is also, in my view, not an option so given that he has now become a cause-celebrity in Germany, may be his status will encourage the German people, the people of Berlin and even Berlin Zoo, to create a polar bear sanctuary where he and others can live out the rest of their lives (but no breeding!) in a more humane and tolerable environment.

Watch this space!

see for more information on Zoo Check and for information on polar bears in captivity.

blogging off


RIP Royale

Wednesday, March 14th, 2007

Dear Friends

Rescuing animals from terrible captive conditions is one of the most satisfying things to be involved in and, over the years, Born Free has rescued dozens of animals from zoos and circuses and the like, and given them sanctuary in our rescue centres in South Africa, India, Uganda and more.

And so it is always sad when the life of one of those animals comes to an end.

Royale, the magnificent tiger that, along with five others, we rescued from an Italian circus ten years ago, was humanely put to sleep today. Our Big Cat Consultant, Tony Wiles, was in attendance when this took place and, of course, it was done in the most humane and compassionate way possible.

Royale was about 17 years old and, in my mind, undoubtedly his years cooped up in a tiny beast wagon as part of a travelling entertainment, took their toll on him as, sadly, seems to be the case with so many of the animals we rescue. However, what we can be totally confident about is that, for the last ten years of his life, he enjoyed the highest quality of care and, in India, an extensive natural environment.

Rescuing animals like Royale is a lottery. Sometimes, as was the case with Grenwich, the tiger we rescued from a circus in the UK back in 1988, they go on for ages. Grenwich died in 2006 nearly 20 years after his rescue. Others, as was the case with Kimba in 1997, lasted less than a month (the autopsy revealed that she was riddled with cancer) but one thing is for sure, we do the very best we can for every animal in our care and it is a privilege to do so.

Signing off.


Living with Wild Animals

Monday, March 12th, 2007

Dear Friends

Today’s the day Born Free’s exciting new exhibition, sponsored by Land Rover, is on display at the Royal Geographical Society, Kensington! 

Living with Wild Animals explores issues surrounding the need for us to develop compassionate and sustainable strategies which will allow wild animals to exist in their natural habitats alongside communities who share their environment.  The animals must be protected and conserved; the people must benefit.

The exhibition runs for a week (12th – 16th March) and the highlight will be an evening lecture in the famous RGS lecture theatre when leading lights from Born Free Foundation, and international experts in their own right, Claudio Sillero, Winnie Kiiru and Ian Redmond OBE, will discuss their field work relating to wolves and tigers, elephants and great apes respectively.

The evening will be hosted by Born Free’s CEO, – and that’s me! - and introduced by our Founder and Chair of Trustees, Virginia McKenna OBE.

Tickets can still be bought so please call Trisha on 01403 240170 or email her on

All for now so blogging off


Lions under threat

Wednesday, March 7th, 2007

Dear Friends

Shocking news from India. On 3rd March, three lion bodies were found near a road in the Gir National Park, Gujarat. Reportedly claws and bones had been removed from the two lionesses and cub. Is this what we at Born /Free have long feared? The start of a concerted trade in lion body parts for traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) as a replacement for the increasingly rare tiger?

Africa’s lion population has, in all likeliness, diminished from 100,000 animals 30 years ago to perhaps 20,000 today. Already under extreme pressure from habitat fragmentation, loss of prey species and human persecution – not to mention trophy hunting – the threat of a new trade for TCM could be another nail in the lion’s coffin.

We are already pretty active trying to do what we can to reduce conflict between lions and people and to tackle trophy hunting of lions which removes in the order of 600 animals each and every year but obviously we are going to need to do a lot more.

I will be getting together with my team over the next few weeks to see how we can better protect the symbol of Born Free and symbol of wildlife.

Blogging off for now. More soon.


Culling on the agenda

Tuesday, March 6th, 2007

Dear Friends

The news from South Africa is deeply disappointing on two fronts. Not only am I very concerned by the latest report that the SA Government’s attempts to ‘close down’ the canned hunting industry (where wild animals are confined in relatively small spaces from which they have no escape and where they are ultimately killed) may do nothing of the kind but also the news that in its new elephant management document, the Government has retained culling as a management option. This news has been condemned by conservationists and animal protection organisations in South Africa and internationally, including The Born Free Foundation. Our fears are based on a number of factors.

Firstly, that culling is not an end in itself but merely a mechanism and once you start culling as a management tool you will have to keep culling every single year in order to maintain the elephant population at the chosen level.

Secondly, old-fashioned ideas that habitats should be static, in other words that they should always look more or less the same, do not now fit with the views of many biologists and ecological managers. It seems much more plausible to me that habitats will depend on the varying pressures that different species exert on them and that a much more fluid perspective is required. Habitats are, it seems, more mosaic-like in structure that rigidly stratified.

Finally, perhaps my single greatest fear is that the products of any cull (and we may be talking about thousands of animals being slaughtered with major animal welfare implications) could be then subject to trade pressures. Culling is an expensive process and I can only imagine that in order to recover costs (and even to provide a profit), the South African authorities will be greatly tempted to push for sales of elephant products and, in particular, ivory. Then we are back where we started – ivory sales stimulating demand and runaway ivory poaching having its greatest impact in parts of Africa least able to defend and protect their vulnerable elephant populations.

It seems that, unlike the elephant, human memories are short. We have seemingly forgotten the killing fields of the 70s and 80s when Africa’s elephant population was more than halved in just ten years. South Africa may not consider that its potential actions will precipitate such devastation but they would be wise to be far more cautious and let compassionate conservation stay their hand.

If you want to know what you can do, visit this section of the Born free site.

Blogging off.